UCSB's Runkle Has a Bite to His Game: Spiker Has Survived Brushes With Wildlife

April 7, 2008

This feature originally ran in the Santa Barbara News-Press on Mar. 12.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The producers of "When Animals Attack" could save a lot of time and money on their next video. All they need to do is follow Mike Runkle around for a while.

Runkle, a libero-turned-setter-turned-outside hitter for the UCSB men's volleyball team, is part of the ultra-exclusive club of human beings who have experienced a shark attack (the International Shark Attack File cited only 71 attacks worldwide in 2007).

But his date with a dorsal fin at age 10, which left him with a skin graft and a large scar around his left shin, is not even the most freakish animal-related memento he carries with him.

Travel a few feet up to his shoulder, and you'll find evidence of another serious wound, this one caused by a land animal.

In the summer of 2006, Runkle was working construction in Montana, where his dad runs a fishing and hunting lodge near the remote town of Troy (pop. 958). Runkle was riding his dirt bike with a friend when a deer walked right in front of him. The bike t-boned the animal at approximately 35 mph, and Runkle went flying over the handlebars and skidding across the pavement.

Amazingly, the deer got up and scampered away. Runkle wasn't so lucky. His left labrum was torn and his shoulder was pulled completely clear of the socket.

"It was definitely the most excruciating pain I've ever felt in my life," he says.

It didn't go away that quickly, either.

Runkle and his buddy had to wait 20 minutes for Mike's dad to arrive with his truck. Troy doesn't have a hospital, so a dash to the town of Libby was in order. As if driving 20 miles with an arm falling off was not agonizing enough, sirens flashed and the crew was stopped for speeding.

The elder Runkle was forced to pull over and stay put until the unsympathetic policeman's son, an EMT, arrived to take Mike to the hospital (as if speeding in the boondocks of Montana was more dangerous than waiting to bleed to death on the side of the road).

Another 20 minutes passed, and the wounded Gaucho was en route once again. Overall, he estimates that his shoulder was completely out of its socket for two hours.

It almost makes the chomping he suffered while a little boy in Cocoa Beach, Fla. -- inflicted by either a bull or tiger shark, he says -- seem like a mosquito bite.

"He's like chum," said UCSB head coach Ken Preston with a chuckle.

But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and Runkle has gone from seeing no playing time last season to the starting lineup this year.

Originally recruited out of Santa Margarita High as a libero (he played nearly every position for Eagles), Runkle, a Law and Society major, had a hard time finding a spot on the court where he could help the Gauchos. He took a redshirt in '05, tallied five kills in three matches in '06, and was stuck behind a standout senior class in '07. At the end of that season, Runkle approached Preston with an idea: He wanted to be the backup setter for Max Klineman.

"My initial reaction was that he was a guy searching for something he could do for the team," said Preston. "He didn't have a lot of confidence as a hitter on the outside and understood that he was undersized (6-foot-2) and didn't jump incredibly high."

But Runkle had already proven himself to Preston off the court during a team retreat at El Capitan before last season.

"He's just a really personable guy. At the retreat he emerged as a guy who had a very sensible direction and an even keel. He had a quiet presence, but whenever he spoke people would listen," said Preston.

So Runkle got his wish and went in to run the offense whenever Klineman struggled early this season, and the junior set with confidence and efficiency when his name was called.

But the Gauchos had a bigger spot to fill than the backup setter position. The young team's attack was abysmal at times, with hitting averages sinking as low as .045 in a Jan. 4 loss to Northridge. The Gauchos broke the .300 mark only twice in their first two matches.

Preston was playing mix-n-match with his lineup, trying to find a combination that would lead to more consistency. He realized that returning All-American Theo Brunner needed to move back from the left to the middle, and that freshman leapfrog Jeff Menzel needed to play on the right side in order to develop into a worthy replacement for graduated superstar Evan Patak.

That left the left side in trouble. Mike Fisher had a nerve problem that sometimes left his hitting-hand numb. Freshman Trey Valbuena went down with a thumb injury. Phil Mathews was hot-and-cold.

Mike Runkle was ready.

"Anything the team needs," is what he told Preston when asked about giving the outside hitter position a try.

So Runkle gave it a shot, and it was a shot in the arm for the Gauchos. With Brunner back in stride bombing the middle and Menzel coming into his own as the team's ball-crusher on the right, all Runkle needed to do was be steady on the left.

"I didn't need to get a ton of kills. I just needed to be consistent, not make a lot of errors and pass well," he said.

And while a bad night here-and-there has left his cumulative hitting clip at a less-than-impressive .186, he has provided a sense of balance to the floor.

There have been, of course, standout performances.

He notched 10 kills and a .562 average in the first of a two-game series against Hawaii. The Gauchos completed the sweep the next night, when Runkle hit .391 with 12 kills. Then there was the four-game win over mighty UCLA, in which Runkle hit .429 with 15 kills and 11 digs.

He ranks fourth on the team in digs, blocks, and aces. Not bad for an undersized guy who looks more like a leftfielder than a left-side hitter.

And as an added benefit, Runkle's position change forced Preston to bring Vince DeVany out of his redshirt year to back up Klineman, and the freshman has been stellar in that role thus far.

Devany and Runkle will both start tonight when the No. 13 Gauchos (7-11, 5-9 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) host No. 10 USC (9-11, 6-8) at Rob Gym in a 7 p.m. match.

Both teams are fighting for a spot in the MPSF Tournament.

"We need this one big time," said Preston.

Just make sure Mike Runkle doesn't go to the zoo between then and now. He doesn't need another scar.